Friday, 28 November 2008

The learning organisation

Daniel Wain’s latest column in People Management magazine offers some resounding shibboleths about learning.

Learning is as natural to people as breathing
Learning is not mandatory, but neither is survival.

But I part company with him when he questions the concept of the learning organisation. Wain argues that ‘learning organisation’ is an oxymoron because “learning involves risk and innovation” (agreed) while “organisation equates to routine and predictability” (er, no it doesn’t - you could perhaps argue that’s what organising equates to, but that’s not the same thing). When he goes on to argue that only people learn, not organisations, it’s clear he’s missed the point about the latter.

Organisations are not impersonal bureaucratic monoliths, albeit sometimes some of them seem like it. Organisations are groups of people, who come together to achieve shared goals. They don’t comprise anything other than people, and the mechanisms people create (and can change). Can you imagine an organisation without people? Of course not - it couldn’t exist.

Peter Senge described the learning organisation as one “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together”. That’s from The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, originally published in 1990, and its sentiments are entirely consistent with those of Wain’s recent column. So it’s a bit puzzling that he rejects the concept of the learning organisation as “unsound” - time for a rethink, Daniel!

Tuesday, 25 November 2008


I have railed before against those who claim you need to be highly motivated to successfully undertake e-learning or distance learning or any form of self-study. It’s not that it isn’t true, it’s just that it’s economical with the truth. You need to be motivated to learn. In any way, using any method. Anyone who thinks part of the teacher or trainer’s role in the classroom is to provide the motivation is making a big mistake.

The only person who can motivate you is you. Others can lead, influence or inspire, but only you can provide the motivation.

I like the story of the football coach who shared his approach when taking on a new team. I paraphrase: “The first thing I do is find out which players need motivated – then I get rid of them”. The point being if they haven’t managed to motivate themselves up till then, they probably never will.

It never ceases to surprise me how much of an industry there is around motivation, including self-promoting gurus of motivational speaking, sources for inspirational quotes and superficial puff, and producers of tacky merchandise to make the workplace feel uncomfortable. In this context, I have been delighted to discover the web offers many posters subverting all that.
There are lots more if you Google “demotivational”. You can even make up your own at

And now seems as good a time as any to plug the Business Balls website, which gives a light-hearted overview of any business topic you care to name. Their take on motivational theory is here.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Management development

The current issue of Professional Manager magazine highlights a new research report from the Chartered Management Institute. Learning at work: e-learning evolution or revolution? looks at the application of digital technology for management development - in my opinion, a relatively neglected subject to date.

Interestingly, the report considers eight distinct technology applications: blogs, e-coaching, e-books, e-learning, online discussion forums, digital videos, audio podcasts and web-based social networking. For me, the inclusion of "e-learning" in that list sticks out like a sore thumb. Perhaps I'm quibbling over language, but for me, they mean "online courses", so why don't they say so? I'd say "e-learning" is an all-embracing term for all of the applications in the above list.

The good news in the report is that e-learning is no longer the sore thumb of management development. Work-based learning remains the most commonly-used, and most valued, approach, but there have been rises in all of the digital applications since the previous report in 2007, most notably among senior managers and directors, particularly in their use of discussion forums and social networks. The report warns that organisations need to harness these applications to their own ends to ensure management development is on-strategy and not random, inconsistent, or plain wrong.

The report can be accessed here.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Garth Heron, RIP

Last year, in reference to Anita Roddick, I wrote lightly about the phenomenon of going on holiday and missing the death of someone famous, only to be surprised when this is mentioned at the end of the year. I had no idea this could happen with someone I knew.

I was in touch with Garth Heron just before I went on holiday – his last email to me was on the evening of 25 August. On 28 August he died suddenly, and the next day I went on holiday. So it was a bit of a shock when I read yesterday - some two months later - the memorial tribute to him in the current issue of HR Network Scotland magazine.

Clearly, we weren’t close, and it wasn’t uncommon for months to pass without us being in contact, but we went back a bit. Garth was the HR Director at United Distillers when he invited me to his table at a charity dinner in the mid-90s at Glasgow’s Grosvenor Hotel, and introduced me to the then world snooker champion, Stephen Hendry (I still have the photograph). This was around the time he became Chairman of the Scottish Advisory Board of the Open College, where I was Manager for Scotland, and although we both moved on soon after, we kept in touch. I have Garth to thank for putting me forward for two jobs, when I was last in the market (one successful, one not) and we often had a coffee together when I was in Edinburgh.

I’m a bit late to offer a tribute to Garth, as it’s all been said by now, but I didn’t like to think of his untimely passing without at least acknowledging him. Garth was easily the most impressive HR professional I have encountered in my career, and the world is a lesser place without him. My condolences to his family and everyone who knew him.

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